MRFF Targets Army Suicide Prevention
sought relief for his claims by invoking an intra-army administrative process. He has exhausted this alternative remedy but has obtained no substantial relief.
The premise of the cryptically vague statement (that Chalker used the Army’s in-place grievance systems) was already included in the lawsuit, so it does not appear that an amendment was judicially required. The announcement of the changes to the lawsuit–which was only filed approximately three months earlier–did highlight the suit in the press for a short time.
The other changes, upon which the MRFF has focused attention, have been additions to the long list of allegations (unrelated to the primary complaint) of Christian endorsement in the US military, which founder Michael Weinstein says is a “national security threat:”
The military command and control of our nation’s nuclear, biological, chemical, conventional and laser-guided weapons has been unconstitutionally compromised by a tsunami of unbridled fundamentalist Christian exceptionalism, triumphalism and proselytizing.
[Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer, errs in that the US has declared it has no offensive biological weapons.] One of the primary additions in the amended suit, repeated nearly verbatim on fellow advocate Jason Leopold’s website, is so misleading as to nearly be dishonest. From the lawsuit:
The 2008 Army Suicide Prevention Manual…promotes religion over no religion, Christianity over other religions, and instructs both chaplains and behavioral health providers to promote “religiosity” as a necessary element of suicide prevention. The manual…states that “Chaplains also need to openly advocate behavioral health as a resource,” but then adds that “Behavioral health providers need to openly advocate spirituality and religiosity as resiliency factors.”
From the article, Weinstein said:
the PowerPoint presentation “is not only an unconstitutional promotion of Christianity for the soldiers who are mandated to attend it, but for the behavioral health providers and non-Christian chaplains who must present it.”
The suit, and Leopold’s commentary, carefully edit out the surrounding sentences. The referenced text (which is publicly available, despite not being authorized for distribution outside the US Army) within its context follows:
Chaplains can certainly speak from their own faith traditions, but need to remember to be inclusive of the different beliefs of the audience. Chaplains also need to openly advocate behavioral health as a resource. Behavioral health providers need to openly advocate spirituality and religiosity as resiliency factors. This briefing will be more effective if both providers are present during the briefing.
Rather than advocating a specific religion, then, the manual specifically advises Chaplains to be inclusive of different beliefs (notice, it does not say faiths; the implication is that a different belief may include no religious faith).
In addition, even a superficial reading of the next three sentences demonstrates that the emphasis is not that health providers should promote religion. It is evident that the intent is for each presenter to validate the suicide prevention methodology of the other — emphasizing the number of legitimate, varied options available to the soldiers and reducing the stigma associated with seeking help. This is one of the Army’s stated goals: emphasizing a “multidisciplinary approach” to suicide prevention. The briefing communicates that a soldier, at his discretion, can go to a health provider or a Chaplain, both of which may be able to provide legitimate means of help.
The US Army has faced a significant increase in suicides over the past few years. In response, it has expanded the variety of suicide prevention programs, advertised those programs to soldiers, and has also emphasized that leaders should work to reduce the potential stigma of prevention resources. A short list of activities that Army units may have conducted during the Suicide Awareness Week/Month (September 2008) included:
Static displays by local helping agencies; screening services by VA Mental Health personnel; family picnics with special speakers hosting a community health fair; ACE suicide prevention classes; chaplain presentations to unit leadership on leadership responsibilities and stigma reduction.
The Chaplaincy is but one tool in a wide array of resources that soldiers have to combat the rise in the suicide rate in the US Army. (In the Army’s “A Leader’s Guide to Suicide Prevention,” a Chaplain is mentioned only once; the pamphlet instead focuses on mental and medical health professionals.) The Army has not been foisting Christianity or religion on soldiers; it has been foisting suicide prevention on them, and it has acknowledged religious resources as one potential suicide prevention measure.
Even so, there are reputable, non-religious, non-activist organizations that recognize for some people, “religiosity” may be a tool in suicide prevention. It is unconscionable that some would seek to deny soldiers the ability to hear about what some believe may be a valid suicide prevention resource.
In addition, Chaplains act not only as counselors but also spiritual advisors to those military members who desire them. In a group forum, a Chaplain and a behavioral health provider (the Army’s recommended setup for the presentation) can speak to the theistic and the a-theistic without demeaning or promoting any faith or non-faith system. And again, the religious undertones of the Chaplaincy’s role in suicide prevention are but one of a variety of resources the Army promotes. “Religiosity” is presented as neither the sole nor superior solution to the Army’s suicide problem.
In perhaps the greatest irony, the MRFF press release indicates they filed the amended suit on 29 December 2008. The allegations over the Suicide Prevention Manual became moot a mere two days later, as the Army manual specifically says it is valid only for the calendar year and is to be revised annually.
Contrary to the implications of the allegations, the military (and Chaplains) can use religious terminology, religious references, and can speak to the virtues of belief systems–even when they are addressing groups or mandatory formations. In fact, this very methodology is used to train military members on religion and religious sensitivity, with respect to both internal military procedures and relationships with both adversaries and allies. (Also, an official, mandatory-attendance military formation recently relied heavily on Taoism, though it is unlikely anyone will complain.)
These actions are permissible under military regulations and the Constitution; they do not establish a religion nor demonstrate that one is favored over another (or none). Instead, the allegations demonstrate the lengths to which opponents may go to remove any hint of Christian presence in the military.